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THE MAN SHAKESPEARE
HIS TRAGIC LIFE STORY
I DEDICATE THIS BOOK TO MY FRIEND, ERNEST BECKETT (NOW LORD GRIMTHORPE),
A MAN OF MOST EXCELLENT DIFFERENCES, WHO UNITES TO A GENIUS FOR
PRACTICAL THINGS A PASSIONATE SYMPATHY FOR ALL HIGH ENDEAVOUR IN
LITERATURE AND ART
SHAKESPEARE PAINTED BY HIMSELF
I. Hamlet: Romeo-Jaques
III. Duke Vincentio-Posthumus
IV. Shakespeare's Men of Action: the Bastard,
Arthur, and King Richard II
V. Shakespeare's Men of Action (continued): Hotspur,
Prince Henry, and Henry V
VI. Shakespeare's Men of Action (concluded): King
Henry VI. and Richard III
VII. Shakespeare as Lyric Poet: "Twelfth Night"
VIII. Shakespeare's Humour: "Falstaff"
I. Shakespeare's early attempts to portray himself
and his wife: Biron, Adriana, Valentine
II. Shakespeare as Antonio the Merchant
III. Shakespeare's Love-story: the Sonnets: Part I
IV. Shakespeare's Love-story: the Sonnets: Part II
V. Shakespeare's Love-story: the Sonnets: Part III
VI. The First-fruit of the Tree of Knowledge: Brutus
VII. Dramas of Revenge and Jealousy: Hamlet
VIII. Dramas of Revenge and Jealousy: Othello
IX. Dramas of Lust: Part I: Troilus and Cressida
X. Dramas of Lust: Part II: Antony and Cleopatra
XI. The drama of Madness: Lear
XII. The Drama of Despair: Timon of Athens
XIII. The Latest Works: All Copies: "Winter's Tale"; "Cymbeline"; "The
XIV. Shakespeare's Life: Part I
XV. Shakespeare's Life: Part II
This book has grown out of a series of articles contributed to "The
Saturday Review" some ten or twelve years ago. As they appeared they
were talked of and criticized in the usual way; a minority of readers
thought "the stuff" interesting; many held that my view of Shakespeare
was purely arbitrary; others said I had used a concordance to such
purpose that out of the mass of words I had managed, by virtue of some
unknown formula, to re-create the character of the man.
The truth is much simpler: I read Shakespeare's plays in boyhood,
chiefly for the stories; every few years later I was fain to re-read
them; for as I grew I always found new beauties in them which I had
formerly missed, and again and again I was lured back by tantalizing
hints and suggestions of a certain unity underlying the diversity of
characters. These suggestions gradually became more definite till at
length, out of the myriad voices in the plays, I began to hear more and
more insistent the accents of one voice, and out of the crowd of faces,
began to distinguish more and more clearly the features of the writer;
for all the world like some lovelorn girl, who, gazing with her soul in
her eyes, finds in the witch's cauldron the face of the beloved.
I have tried in this book to trace the way I followed, step by step; for
I found it effective to rough in the chief features of the man first,
and afterwards, taking the plays in succession, to show how Shakespeare
painted himself at full-length not once, but twenty times, at as many
different periods of his life. This is one reason why he is more
interesting to us than the greatest men of the past, than Dante even, or
Homer; for Dante and Homer worked only at their best in the flower of
manhood. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has painted himself for us in
his green youth with hardly any knowledge of life or art, and then in
his eventful maturity, with growing experience and new powers, in
masterpiece after masterpiece; and at length in his decline with
weakened grasp and fading colours, so that in him we can study the
growth and fruiting and decay of the finest spirit that has yet been
born among men. This tragedy of tragedies, in which "Lear" is only one
scene--this rise to intensest life and widest vision and fall through
abysms of despair and madness to exhaustion and death--can be followed
experience by experience, from Stratford to London and its thirty years
of passionate living, and then from London to village Stratford again,
and the eternal shrouding silence.
As soon as this astonishing drama discovered itself to me in its tragic
completeness I jumped to the conclusion that it must have been set forth
long ago in detail by Shakespeare's commentators, and so, for the first
time, I turned to their works. I do not wish to rail at my forerunners
as Carlyle railed at the historians of Cromwell, or I should talk, as he
talked, about "libraries of inanities...conceited dilettantism and
pedantry...prurient stupidity," and so forth. The fact is, I found all
this, and worse; I waded through tons of talk to no result. Without a
single exception the commentators have all missed the man and the story;
they have turned the poet into a tradesman, and the unimaginable tragedy
of his life into the commonplace record of a successful tradesman's
career. Even to explain this astounding misadventure of the host of
critics is a little difficult. The mistake, of course, arose from the
fact that his contemporaries told very little about Shakespeare; they
left his appearance and even the incidents of his life rather vague.
Being without a guide, and having no clear idea of Shakespeare's
character, the critics created him in their own image, and, whenever
they were in doubt, idealized him according to the national type.
Still, there was at least one exception. Some Frenchman, I think it is
Joubert, says that no great man is born into the world without another
man being born about the same time, who understands and can interpret
him, and Shakespeare was of necessity singularly fortunate in his
interpreter. Ben Jonson was big enough to see him fairly, and to give
excellent-true testimony concerning him. Jonson's view of Shakespeare is
astonishingly accurate and trustworthy so far as it goes; even his
attitude of superiority to Shakespeare is fraught with meaning. Two
hundred years later, the rising tide of international criticism produced
two men, Goethe and Coleridge, who also saw Shakespeare, if only by
glimpses, or rather by divination of kindred genius, recognizing certain
indubitable traits. Goethe's criticism of "Hamlet" has been vastly
over-praised; but now and then he used words about Shakespeare which, in
due course, we shall see were illuminating words, the words of one who
guessed something of the truth. Coleridge, too, with his curious,
complex endowment of philosopher and poet, resembled Shakespeare, saw
him, therefore, by flashes, and might have written greatly about him;
but, alas, Coleridge, a Puritan born, was brought up in epicene
hypocrisies, and determined to see Shakespeare--that child of the
Renascence--as a Puritan, too, and consequently mis-saw him far oftener
than he saw him; misjudged him hideously, and had no inkling of his
There is a famous passage in Coleridge's "Essays on Shakespeare" which
illustrates what I mean. It begins: "In Shakespeare all the elements of
womanhood are holy"; and goes on to eulogize the instinct of chastity
which all his women possess, and this in spite of Doll Tearsheet,
Tamora, Cressida, Goneril, Regan, Cleopatra, the Dark Lady of the
Sonnets, and many other frail and fascinating figures. Yet whatever
gleam of light has fallen on Shakespeare since Coleridge's day has come
chiefly from that dark lantern which he now and then flashed upon the
In one solitary respect, our latter-day criticism has been successful;
it has established with very considerable accuracy the chronology of the
plays, and so the life-story of the poet is set forth in due order for
those to read who can.
This then is what I found--a host of commentators who saw men as trees
walking, and mistook plain facts, and among them one authentic witness,
Jonson, and two interesting though not trustworthy witnesses, Goethe and
Coleridge--and nothing more in three centuries. The mere fact may well
give us pause, pointing as it does to a truth which is still
insufficiently understood. It is the puzzle of criticism, at once the
despair and wonder of readers, that the greatest men of letters usually
pass through life without being remarked or understood by their
contemporaries. The men of Elizabeth's time were more interested in
Jonson than in Shakespeare, and have told us much more about the younger
than the greater master; just as Spaniards of the same age were more
interested in Lope de Vega than in Cervantes, and have left a better
picture of the second-rate playwright than of the world-poet. Attempting
to solve this problem Emerson coolly assumed that the men of the
Elizabethan age were so great that Shakespeare himself walked about
among them unnoticed as a giant among giants. This reading of the riddle
is purely transcendental. We know that Shakespeare's worst plays were
far oftener acted than his best; that "Titus Andronicus" by popular
favour was more esteemed than "Hamlet." The majority of contemporary
poets and critics regarded Shakespeare rather as a singer of "sugred"
verses than as a dramatist. The truth is that Shakespeare passed through
life unnoticed because he was so much greater than his contemporaries
that they could not see him at all in his true proportions. It was
Jonson, the nearest to him in greatness, who alone saw him at all fairly
and appreciated his astonishing genius.
Nothing illustrates more perfectly the unconscious wisdom of the English
race than the old saying that "a man must be judged by his peers." One's
peers, in fact, are the only persons capable of judging one, and the
truth seems to be that three centuries have only produced three men at
all capable of judging Shakespeare. The jury is still being collected.
But from the quality of the first three, and of their praise, it is
already plain that his place will be among the highest. From various
indications, too, it looks as if the time for judging him had come:
"Hamlet" is perhaps his most characteristic creation, and Hamlet, in his
intellectual unrest, morbid brooding, cynical self-analysis and dislike
of bloodshed, is much more typical of the nineteenth or twentieth
century than of the sixteenth. Evidently the time for classifying the
creator of Hamlet is at hand.
And this work of description and classification should be done as a
scientist would do it: for criticism itself has at length bent to the
Time-spirit and become scientific. And just as in science, analysis for
the moment has yielded pride of place to synthesis, so the critical
movement in literature has in our time become creative. The chemist, who
resolves any substance into its elements, is not satisfied till by
synthesis he can re-create the substance out of its elements: this is
the final proof that his knowledge is complete. And so we care little or
nothing to-day for critical analyses or appreciations which are not
creative presentments of the person. "Paint him for us," we say, "in his
habit as he lived, and we will take it that you know something about
One of the chief attempts at creative criticism in English literature,
or, perhaps it would be fairer to say, the only memorable attempt, is
Carlyle's Cromwell. He has managed to build up the man for us quite
credibly out of Cromwell's letters and speeches, showing us the
underlying sincerity and passionate resolution of the great Puritan once
for all. But unfortunately Carlyle was too romantic an artist, too
persuaded in his hero-worship to discover for us Cromwell's faults and
failings. In his book we find nothing of the fanatic who ordered the
Irish massacres, nothing of the neuropath who lived in hourly dread of
assassination. Carlyle has painted his subject all in lights, so to
speak; the shadows are not even indicated, and yet he ought to have
known that in proportion to the brilliancy of the light the shadows must
of necessity be dark. It is not for me to point out that this romantic
painting of great men, like all other make-believes and hypocrisies, has
its drawbacks and shortcomings: it is enough that it has had its day and
produced its pictures of giant-heroes and their worshippers for those
who love such childish toys.
The wonderful age in which we live--this twentieth century with its
X-rays that enable us to see through the skin and flesh of men, and to
study the working of their organs and muscles and nerves--has brought a
new spirit into the world, a spirit of fidelity to fact, and with it a
new and higher ideal of life and of art, which must of necessity change
and transform all the conditions of existence, and in time modify the
almost immutable nature of man. For this new spirit, this love of the
fact and of truth, this passion for reality will do away with the
foolish fears and futile hopes which have fretted the childhood of our
race, and will slowly but surely establish on broad foundations the
Kingdom of Man upon Earth. For that is the meaning and purpose of the
change which is now coming over the world. The faiths and convictions of
twenty centuries are passing away and the forms and institutions of a
hundred generations of men are dissolving before us like the baseless
fabric of a dream. A new morality is already shaping itself in the
spirit; a morality based not on guess-work and on fancies; but on
ascertained laws of moral health; a scientific morality belonging not to
statics, like the morality of the Jews, but to dynamics, and so fitting
the nature of each individual person. Even now conscience with its
prohibitions is fading out of life, evolving into a more profound
consciousness of ourselves and others, with multiplied incitements to
wise giving. The old religious asceticism with its hatred of the body is
dead; the servile acceptance of conditions of life and even of natural
laws is seen to be vicious; it is of the nobility of man to be insatiate
in desire and to rebel against limiting conditions; it is the property
of his intelligence to constrain even the laws of nature to the
attainment of his ideal.
Already we are proud of being students, investigators, servants of
truth, and we leave the great names of demi-gods and heroes a little
contemptuously to the men of bygone times. As student-artists we are no
longer content with the outward presentment and form of men: we want to
discover the protean vanities, greeds and aspirations of men, and to lay
bare, as with a scalpel, the hidden motives and springs of action. We
dream of an art that shall take into account the natural daily decay and
up-building of cell-life; the wars that go on in the blood; the fevers
of the brain; the creeping paralysis of nerve-exhaustion; above all, we
must be able even now from a few bare facts, to re-create a man and make
him live and love again for the reader, just as the biologist from a few
scattered bones can reconstruct some prehistoric bird or fish or mammal.
And we student-artists have no desire to paint our subject as better or
nobler or smaller or meaner than he was in reality; we study his
limitations as we study his gifts, his virtues with as keen an interest
as his vices; for it is in some excess of desire, or in some
extravagance of mentality, that we look for the secret of his
achievement, just as we begin to wonder when we see hands constantly
outstretched in pious supplication, whether a foot is not thrust out
behind in some secret shame, for the biped, man, must keep a balance.
I intend first of all to prove from Shakespeare's works that he has
painted himself twenty times from youth till age at full length: I shall
consider and compare these portraits till the outlines of his character
are clear and certain; afterwards I shall show how his little vanities
and shames idealized the picture, and so present him as he really was,
with his imperial intellect and small snobberies; his giant vices and
paltry self-deceptions; his sweet gentleness and long martyrdom. I
cannot but think that his portrait will thus gain more in truth than it
can lose in ideal beauty. Or let me come nearer to my purpose by means
of a simile. Talking with Sir David Gill one evening on shipboard about
the fixed stars, he pointed one out which is so distant that we cannot
measure how far it is away from us and can form no idea of its
magnitude. "But surely," I exclaimed, "the great modern telescopes must
bring the star nearer and magnify it?" "No," he replied, "no; the best
instruments make the star clearer to us, but certainly not larger." This
is what I wish to do in regard to Shakespeare; make him clearer to men,
even if I do not make him larger.
And if I were asked why I do this, why I take the trouble to re-create a
man now three centuries dead, it is first of all, of course, because he
is worth it--the most complex and passionate personality in the world,
whether of life or letters--because, too, there are certain lessons
which the English will learn from Shakespeare more quickly and easily
than from any living man, and a little because I want to get rid of
Shakespeare by assimilating all that was fine in him, while giving all
that was common and vicious in him as spoil to oblivion. He is like the
Old-Man-of-the-Sea on the shoulders of our youth; he has become an
obsession to the critic, a weapon to the pedant, a nuisance to the man
of genius. True, he has painted great pictures in a superb, romantic
fashion; he is the Titian of dramatic art: but is there to be no
Rembrandt, no Balzac, no greater Tolstoi in English letters? I want to
liberate Englishmen so far as I can from the tyranny of Shakespeare's
greatness. For the new time is upon us, with its new knowledge and new
claims, and we English are all too willing to live in the past, and so
lose our inherited place as leader of the nations.
The French have profited by their glorious Revolution: they trusted
reason and have had their reward; no such leap forward has ever been
made as France made in that one decade, and the effects are still
potent. In the last hundred years the language of Moliere has grown
fourfold; the slang of the studios and the gutter and the laboratory, of
the engineering school and the dissecting table, has been ransacked for
special terms to enrich and strengthen the language in order that it may
deal easily with the new thoughts. French is now a superb instrument,
while English is positively poorer than it was in the time of
Shakespeare, thanks to the prudery of our illiterate middle class.
Divorced from reality, with its activities all fettered in baby-linen,
our literature has atrophied and dwindled into a babble of nursery
rhymes, tragedies of Little Marys, tales of Babes in a Wood. The example
of Shakespeare may yet teach us the value of free speech; he could say
what he liked as he liked: he was not afraid of the naked truth and the
naked word, and through his greatness a Low Dutch dialect has become the
chiefest instrument of civilization, the world-speech of humanity at
SHAKESPEARE PAINTED BY HIMSELF
"As I passed by ... I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE
UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto
you." This work of Paul--the discovery and proclaiming of an unknown
god--is in every age the main function of the critic.
An unknown god this Shakespeare of ours, whom all are agreed it would be
well to know, if in any way possible. As to the possibility, however,
the authorities are at loggerheads. Hallam, "the judicious," declared
that it was impossible to learn anything certain about "the man,
Shakespeare." Wordsworth, on the other hand (without a nickname to show
a close connection with the common), held that Shakespeare unlocked his
heart with the sonnets for key. Browning jeered at this belief, to be in
turn contradicted by Swinburne. Matthew Arnold gave us in a sonnet "the
best opinion of his time":
"Others abide our question. Thou art free.
We ask and ask--Thou smilest and art still,
But alas! the best opinion of one generation is in these matters often
flat unreason to the next, and it may be that in this instance neither
the opinion of Hallam nor Browning nor Arnold will be allowed to count.
As it is the object of a general to win battles so it is the life-work
of the artist to show himself to us, and the completeness with which he
reveals his own individuality is perhaps the best measure of his genius.
One does this like Montaigne, simply, garrulously, telling us his height
and make, his tastes and distastes, his loves and fears and habits, till
gradually the seeming-artless talk brings the man before us, a
sun-warmed fruit of humanity, with uncouth rind of stiff manners and
sweet kindly juices, not perfect in any way, shrivelled on this side by
early frost-bite, and on that softened to corruption through too much
heat, marred here by the bitter-black cicatrice of an ancient injury and
there fortune-spotted, but on the whole healthy, grateful, of a most
pleasant ripeness. Another, like Shakespeare, with passionate
conflicting sympathies and curious impartial intellect cannot discover
himself so simply; needs, like the diamond, many facets to show all the
light in him, and so proceeds to cut them one after the other as
Falstaff or Hamlet, to the dazzling of the purblind.
Yet Shakespeare's purpose is surely the same as Montaigne's, to reveal
himself to us, and it would be hasty to decide that his skill is
inferior. For while Montaigne had nothing but prose at his command, and
not too rich a prose, as he himself complains, Shakespeare in magic of
expression has had no equal in recorded time, and he used the lyric as
well as the dramatic form, poetry as well as prose, to give his soul
We are doing Shakespeare wrong by trying to believe that he hides
himself behind his work; the suspicion is as unworthy as the old
suspicion dissipated by Carlyle that Cromwell was an ambitious
hypocrite. Sincerity is the birthmark of genius, and we can be sure that
Shakespeare has depicted himself for us with singular fidelity; we can
see him in his works, if we will take the trouble, "in his habit as he
We are doing ourselves wrong, too, by pretending that Shakespeare
"out-tops knowledge." He did not fill the world even in his own time:
there was room beside him in the days of Elizabeth for Marlowe and
Spenser, Ben Jonson and Bacon, and since then the spiritual outlook,
like the material outlook, has widened to infinity. There is space in
life now for a dozen ideals undreamed-of in the sixteenth century. Let
us have done with this pretence of doglike humility; we, too, are men,
and there is on earth no higher title, and in the universe nothing
beyond our comprehending. It will be well for us to know Shakespeare and
all his high qualities and do him reverence; it will be well for us,
too, to see his limitations and his faults, for after all it is the
human frailties in a man that call forth our sympathy and endear him to
us, and without love there is no virtue in worship, no attraction in
The doubt as to the personality of Shakespeare, and the subsequent
confusion and contradictions are in the main, I think, due to Coleridge.
He was the first modern critic to have glimpses of the real Shakespeare,
and the vision lent his words a singular authority. But Coleridge was a
hero-worshipper by nature and carried reverence to lyric heights. He
used all his powers to persuade men that Shakespeare was [Greek:
myrionous anaer]--"the myriad-minded man"; a sort of demi-god who
was every one and no one, a Proteus without individuality of his own.
The theory has held the field for nearly a century, probably because it
flatters our national vanity; for in itself it is fantastically absurd
and leads to most ridiculous conclusions. For instance, when Coleridge
had to deal with the fact that Shakespeare never drew a miser, instead
of accepting the omission as characteristic, for it is confirmed by Ben
Jonson's testimony that he was "of an open and free nature," Coleridge
proceeded to argue that avarice is not a permanent passion in humanity,
and that Shakespeare probably for that reason chose to leave it
undescribed. This is an example of the ecstasy of hero-worship; it is
begging the question to assume that whatever Shakespeare did was
perfect; humanity cannot be penned up even in Shakespeare's brain. Like
every other man of genius Shakespeare must have shown himself in his
qualities and defects, in his preferences and prejudices; "a fallible
being," as stout old Dr. Johnson knew, "will fail somewhere."
Even had Shakespeare tried to hide himself in his work, he could not
have succeeded. Now that the print of a man's hand or foot or ear is
enough to distinguish him from all other men, it is impossible to
believe that the mask of his mind, the very imprint, form and pressure
of his soul should be less distinctive. Just as Monsieur Bertillon's
whorl-pictures of a thumb afford overwhelming proofs of a man's
identity, so it is possible from Shakespeare's writings to establish
beyond doubt the main features of his character and the chief incidents
of his life. The time for random assertion about Shakespeare and
unlimited eulogy of him has passed away for ever: the object of this
inquiry is to show him as he lived and loved and suffered, and the
proofs of this and of that trait shall be so heaped up as to stifle
doubt and reach absolute conviction. For not only is the circumstantial
evidence overwhelming and conclusive, but we have also the testimony of
eye-witnesses with which to confirm it, and one of these witnesses, Ben
Jonson, is of rare credibility and singularly well equipped.
Let us begin, then, by treating Shakespeare as we would treat any other
writer, and ask simply how a dramatic author is most apt to reveal
himself. A great dramatist may not paint himself for us at any time in
his career with all his faults and vices; but when he goes deepest into
human nature, we may be sure that self-knowledge is his guide; as Hamlet
said, "To know a man well, were to know himself" (oneself), so far
justifying the paradox that dramatic writing is merely a form of
autobiography. We may take then as a guide this first criterion that, in
his masterpiece of psychology, the dramatist will reveal most of his own
If a dozen lovers of Shakespeare were asked to name the most profound
and most complex character in all his dramas it is probable that every
one without hesitation would answer Hamlet. The current of cultivated
opinion has long set in this direction. With the intuition of a kindred
genius, Goethe was the first to put Hamlet on a pedestal: "the
incomparable," he called him, and devoted pages to an analysis of the
character. Coleridge followed with the confession whose truth we
shall see later: "I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so." But
even if it be admitted that Hamlet is the most complex and profound of
Shakespeare's creations, and therefore probably the character in which
Shakespeare revealed most of himself, the question of degree still
remains to be determined. Is it possible to show certainly that even the
broad outlines of Hamlet's character are those of the master-poet?
There are various ways in which this might be proved. For instance, if
one could show that whenever Shakespeare fell out of a character he was
drawing, he unconsciously dropped into the Hamlet vein, one's suspicion
as to the identity of Hamlet and the poet would be enormously
strengthened. There is another piece of evidence still more convincing.
Suppose that Shakespeare in painting another character did nothing but
paint Hamlet over again trait by trait--virtue by virtue, fault by
fault--our assurance would be almost complete; for a dramatist only
makes this mistake when he is speaking unconsciously in his proper
person. But if both these kinds of proof were forthcoming, and not once
but a dozen times, then surely our conviction as to the essential
identity of Hamlet and Shakespeare would amount to practical certitude.
Of course it would be foolish, even in this event, to pretend that
Hamlet exhausts Shakespeare; art does little more than embroider the
fringe of the garment of life, and the most complex character in drama
or even in fiction is simple indeed when compared with even the simplest
of living men or women. Shakespeare included in himself Falstaff and
Cleopatra, beside the author of the sonnets, and knowledge drawn from
all these must be used to fill out and perhaps to modify the outlines
given in Hamlet before one can feel sure that the portrait is a
re-presentment of reality. But when this study is completed, it will be
seen that with many necessary limitations, Hamlet is indeed a revelation
of some of the most characteristic traits of Shakespeare.
To come to the point quickly, I will take Hamlet's character as analyzed
by Coleridge and Professor Dowden.
Coleridge says: "Hamlet's character is the prevalence of the abstracting
and generalizing habit over the practical. He does not want courage,
skill, will or opportunity; but every incident sets him thinking: and it
is curious, and at the same time strictly natural, that Hamlet, who all
the play seems reason itself, should be impelled at last by mere
accident to effect his object." Again he says: "in Hamlet we see a
great, an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate
aversion to real action consequent upon it."
Professor Dowden's analysis is more careful but hardly as complete. He
calls Hamlet "the meditative son" of a strong-willed father, and adds,
"he has slipped on into years of full manhood still a haunter of the
university, a student of philosophies, an amateur in art, a ponderer on
the things of life and death who has never formed a resolution or
executed a deed. This long course of thinking apart from action has
destroyed Hamlet's very capacity for belief.... In presence of the
spirit he is himself 'a spirit,' and believes in the immortality of the
soul. When left to his private thoughts he wavers uncertainly to and
fro; death is a sleep; a sleep, it may be, troubled with dreams.... He
is incapable of certitude.... After his fashion (that of one who
relieves himself by speech rather than by deeds) he unpacks his heart in
Now what other personage is there in Shakespeare who shows these traits
or some of them? He should be bookish and irresolute, a lover of thought
and not of action, of melancholy temper too, and prone to unpack his
heart with words. Almost every one who has followed the argument thus
far will be inclined to think of Romeo. Hazlitt declared that "Romeo is
Hamlet in love. There is the same rich exuberance of passion and
sentiment in the one, that there is of thought and sentiment in the
other. Both are absent and self-involved; both live out of themselves in
a world of imagination." Much of this is true and affords a noteworthy
example of Hazlitt's occasional insight into character, yet for reasons
that will appear later it is not possible to insist, as Hazlitt does,
upon the identity of Romeo and Hamlet. The most that can be said is that
Romeo is a younger brother of Hamlet, whose character is much less
mature and less complex than that of the student-prince. Moreover, the
characterization in Romeo--the mere drawing and painting--is very
inferior to that put to use in Hamlet. Romeo is half hidden from us in
the rose-mist of passion, and after he is banished from Juliet's arms we
only see him for a moment as he rushes madly by into never-ending night,
and all the while Shakespeare is thinking more of the poetry of the
theme than of his hero's character. Romeo is crude and immature when
compared with a profound psychological study like Hamlet. In "Hamlet"
the action often stands still while incidents are invented for the
mere purpose of displaying the peculiarities of the protagonist. "Hamlet,"
too, is the longest of Shakespeare's plays with the exception of "Antony
and Cleopatra," and "the total length of Hamlet's speeches," says
Dryasdust, "far exceeds that of those allotted by Shakespeare to any
other of his characters." The important point, however, is that Romeo
has a more than family likeness to Hamlet. Even in the heat and heyday
of his passion Romeo plays thinker; Juliet says, "Good-night" and
disappears, but he finds time to give us the abstract truth:
"Love goes towards love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks."
Juliet appears again unexpectedly, and again Hamlet's generalizing habit
asserts itself in Romeo:
"How silver-sweet sound lovers' tongues by night,
Like softest music to attending ears."
We may be certain that Juliet would have preferred more pointed praise.
He is indeed so lost in his ill-timed reverie that Juliet has to call
him again and again by name before he attends to her.
Romeo has Hamlet's peculiar habit of talking to himself. He falls into a
soliloquy on his way to Juliet in Capulet's orchard, when his heart must
have been beating so loudly that it would have prevented him from
hearing himself talk, and into another when hurrying to the apothecary.
In this latter monologue, too, when all his thoughts must have been of
Juliet and their star-crossed fates, and love-devouring Death, he is
able to picture for us the apothecary and his shop with a wealth of
detail that says more for Shakespeare's painstaking and memory than for
his insight into character. The fault, however, is not so grave as it
would be if Romeo were a different kind of man; but like Hamlet he is
always ready to unpack his heart with words, and if they are not the
best words sometimes, sometimes even very inappropriate words, it only
shows that in his first tragedy Shakespeare was not the master of his
art that he afterwards became.
In the churchyard scene of the fifth act Romeo's likeness to Hamlet
comes into clearest light.
Hamlet says to Laertes:
"I pr'ythee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For though I am not splenitive and rash
Yet have I something in me dangerous
Which let thy wisdom fear."
In precisely the same temper, Romeo says to Paris:
"Good, gentle youth, tempt not a desperate man;
Fly hence and leave me; think upon these gone,
Let them affright thee."
This magnanimity is so rare that its existence would almost of itself be
sufficient to establish a close relationship between Romeo and Hamlet.
Romeo's last speech, too, is characteristic of Hamlet: on the very
threshold of death he generalizes:
"How oft when men are at the point of death,
Have they been merry? which their keepers call
A lightening before death."
There is in Romeo, too, that peculiar mixture of pensive sadness and
loving sympathy which is the very vesture of Hamlet's soul; he says to
"Noble County Paris":
"O, give me thy hand,
One writ with me in sour misfortune's book."
And finally Shakespeare's supreme lyrical gift is used by Romeo as
unconstrainedly as by Hamlet himself. The beauty in the last soliloquy
is of passion rather than of intellect, but in sheer triumphant beauty
some lines of it have never been surpassed:
"Here, here will I remain
With worms that are thy chambermaids; O, here
Will I set up my everlasting rest
And shake the yoke of inauspicious stars
From this world-wearied flesh."
The whole soliloquy and especially the superb epithet "world-wearied"
are at least as suitable to Hamlet as to Romeo. Passion, it is true, is
more accentuated in Romeo, just as there is greater irresolution
combined with intenser self-consciousness in Hamlet, yet all the
qualities of the youthful lover are to be found in the student-prince.
Hamlet is evidently the later finished picture of which Romeo was merely
the charming sketch. Hamlet says he is revengeful and ambitious,
although he is nothing of the kind, and in much the same way Romeo says:
"I'll be a candle-holder and look on,"
whereas he plays the chief part and a very active part in the drama. If
he were more of a "candle-holder" and onlooker, he would more resemble
Hamlet. Then too, though he generalizes, he does not search the darkness
with aching eyeballs as Hamlet does; the problems of life do not as yet
lie heavy on his soul; he is too young to have felt their mystery and
terror; he is only just within the shadow of that melancholy which to
Hamlet discolours the world.
Seven or eight years after writing "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare
growing conscious of these changes in his own temperament embodied them
in another character, the melancholy "Jaques" in "As You Like It." Every
one knows that Jaques is Shakespeare's creation; he is not to be found
in Lodge's "Rosalynde," whence Shakespeare took the story and most of
the characters of his play. Jaques is only sketched in with light
strokes, but all his traits are peculiarly Hamlet's traits. For Jaques
is a melancholy student of life as Hamlet is, with lightning-quick
intelligence and heavy heart, and these are the Hamlet qualities which
were not brought into prominence in the youthful Romeo. Passages taken
at haphazard will suffice to establish my contention. "Motley's the only
wear," says Jaques, as if longing to assume the cap and bells, and
Hamlet plays the fool's part with little better reason. Jaques exclaims:
"Give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine."
And Hamlet cries:
"The Time is out of joint; O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right."
The famous speech of Jaques, "All the world's a stage," might have been
said by Hamlet, indeed belongs of right to the person who gave the
exquisite counsel to the players. Jaques' confession of melancholy, too,
both in manner and matter is characteristic of Hamlet. How often
Shakespeare must have thought it over before he was able to bring the
peculiar nature of his own malady into such relief:
"I have neither the scholar's melancholy, which is emulation; nor the
musician's, which is fantastical; nor the courtier's, which is proud;
nor the soldier's, which is ambitious; nor the lawyer's, which is
politic; nor the lady's, which is nice; nor the lover's, which is all
these; but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples,
extracted from many objects, and, indeed, the sundry contemplation of my
travels; which, by often rumination, wraps me in, a most humourous
This "humourous sadness," the child of contemplation, was indeed
Shakespeare's most constant mood. Jaques, too, loves solitude and the
country as Hamlet loved them--and above all the last trait recorded of
Jaques, his eagerness to see the reformed Duke and learn from the
convert, is a perfect example of that intellectual curiosity which is
one of Hamlet's most attaching characteristics. Yet another trait is
attributed to Jaques, which we must on no account forget. The Duke
accuses him of lewdness though lewdness seems out of place in Jaques's
character, and is certainly not shown in the course of the action. If we
combine the characters of Romeo, the poet-lover, and Jaques, the
pensive-sad philosopher, we have almost the complete Hamlet.
It is conceivable that even a fair-minded reader of the plays will admit
all I have urged about the likeness of Romeo and Jaques to Hamlet
without concluding that these preliminary studies, so to speak, for the
great portrait render it at all certain that the masterpiece of
portraiture is a likeness of Shakespeare himself. The impartial critic
will probably say, "You have raised a suspicion in my mind; a strong
suspicion it may be, but still a suspicion that is far from certitude."
Fortunately the evidence still to be offered is a thousand times more
convincing than any inferences that can properly be drawn from Romeo or
from Jaques, or even from both together.
There is a later drama of Shakespeare's, a drama which comes between
"Othello" and "Lear," and belongs, therefore, to the topmost height of
the poet's achievement, whose principal character is Hamlet, Hamlet over
again, with every peculiarity and every fault; a Hamlet, too, entangled
in an action which is utterly unsuited to his nature. Surely if this
statement can be proved, it will be admitted by all competent judges
that the identity of Hamlet and his creator has been established. For
Shakespeare must have painted this second Hamlet unconsciously. Think of
it. In totally new circumstances the poet speaks with Hamlet's voice in
Hamlet's words. The only possible explanation is that he is speaking
from his own heart, and for that reason is unaware of the mistake. The
drama I refer to is "Macbeth." No one, so far as I know, has yet thought
of showing that there is any likeness between the character of Hamlet
and that of Macbeth, much less identity; nevertheless, it seems to me
easy to prove that Macbeth, "the rugged Macbeth," as Hazlitt and Brandes
call him, is merely our gentle irresolute, humanist, philosopher Hamlet
masquerading in galligaskins as a Scottish thane.
Let us take the first appearance of Macbeth, and we are forced to remark
at once that he acts and speaks exactly as Hamlet in like circumstances
would act and speak. The honest but slow Banquo is amazed when Macbeth
starts and seems to fear the fair promises of the witches; he does not
see what the nimble Hamlet-intellect has seen in a flash--the dread
means by which alone the promises can be brought to fulfilment. As soon
as Macbeth is hailed "Thane of Cawdor" Banquo warns him, but Macbeth, in
spite of the presence of others, falls at once, as Hamlet surely would
have fallen, into a soliloquy: a thing, considering the circumstances,
most false to general human nature, for what he says must excite
Banquo's suspicion, and is only true to the Hamlet-mind, that in and out
of season loses itself in meditation. The soliloquy, too, is startlingly
characteristic of Hamlet. After giving expression to the merely natural
uplifting of his hope, Macbeth begins to weigh the for and against like
"This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill; cannot be good; if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image ...
Is smothered in surmise and nothing is
But what is not,----"
When Banquo draws attention to him as "rapt," Macbeth still goes on
talking to himself, for at length he has found arguments against action:
"If chance will have me King, why chance may crown me,
Without my stir,"--
all in the true Hamlet vein. At the end of the act, Macbeth when
excusing himself to his companions becomes the student of Wittenberg in
proper person. The courteous kindliness of the words is almost as
characteristic as the bookish illustration:
"Kind gentlemen, your pains
Are registered where every day I turn
The leaf to read them."
If this is not Hamlet's very tone, manner and phrase, then individuality
of nature has no peculiar voice.
I have laid such stress upon this, the first scene in which Macbeth
appears, because the first appearance is by far the most important for
the purpose of establishing the main outlines of a character; first
impressions in a drama being exceedingly difficult to modify and almost
impossible to change.
Macbeth, however, acts Hamlet from one end of the play to the other; and
Lady Macbeth's first appearance (a personage almost as important to the
drama as Macbeth himself) is used by Shakespeare to confirm this view of
Macbeth's character. After reading her husband's letter almost her first
"Yet do I fear thy nature.
It is too full o' the milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way."
What is this but a more perfect expression of Hamlet's nature than
Hamlet himself gives? Hamlet declares bitterly that he is "pigeon
livered," and lacks "gall to make oppression bitter"; he says to
Laertes, "I loved you ever," and to his mother:
"I must be cruel only to be kind,"
and she tells the King that he wept for Polonius' death. But the best
phrase for his gentle-heartedness is what Lady Macbeth gives here: he is
"too full o' the milk of human kindness." The words are as true of the
Scottish chieftain as of the Wittenberg student; in heart they are one
and the same person.
Though excited to action by his wife, Macbeth's last words in this scene
are to postpone decision. "We will speak further," he says, whereupon
the woman takes the lead, warns him to dissemble, and adds, "leave all
the rest to me." Macbeth's doubting, irresolution, and dislike of action
could hardly be more forcibly portrayed.
The seventh scene of the first act begins with another long soliloquy by
Macbeth, and this soliloquy shows us not only Hamlet's irresolution and
untimely love of meditation, but also the peculiar pendulum-swing of
"If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well
It were done quickly: if the assassination
Could trammel up the consequence, and catch
With his surcease success: that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all; here,
But here upon this bank and shoal of time
We'd jump the life to come. . . . ."
Is not this the same soul which also in a soliloquy questions
fate?--"Whether 'tis better in the mind...."
Macbeth, too, has Hamlet's peculiar and exquisite intellectual
fairness--a quality, be it remarked in passing, seldom found in a
ruthless murderer. He sees even the King's good points:
...... "this Duncan
Hath borne his faculties so meek, hath been
So clear in his great office, that his virtues
Will plead like angels, trumpet-tongued, against
The deep damnation of his taking off."
Is it not like Hamlet to be able to condemn himself in this way
beforehand? Macbeth ends this soliloquy with words which come from the
inmost of Hamlet's heart:
"I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
And falls on the other."
Hamlet, too, has no spur to prick the sides of his intent, and Hamlet,
too, would be sure to see how apt ambition is to overleap itself, and so
would blunt the sting of the desire. This monologue alone should have
been sufficient to reveal to all critics the essential identity of
Hamlet and Macbeth. Lady Macbeth, too, tells us that Macbeth left the
supper table where he was entertaining the King, in order to indulge
himself in this long monologue, and when he hears that his absence has
excited comment, that he has been asked for even by the King, he does
not attempt to excuse his strange conduct, he merely says, "We will
proceed no further in this business," showing in true Hamlet fashion how
resolution has been "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." In
fact, as his wife says to him, he lets "'I dare not' wait upon 'I would'
like the poor cat i' the adage." Even when whipped to action by Lady
Macbeth's preternatural eagerness, he asks:
"If we should fail?"
whereupon she tells him to screw his courage to the sticking place, and
describes the deed itself. Infected by her masculine resolution, Macbeth
at length consents to what he calls the "terrible feat." The word
"terrible" here is surely more characteristic of the humane
poet-thinker than of the chieftain-murderer. Even at this crisis, too,
of his fate Macbeth cannot cheat himself; like Hamlet he is compelled to
see himself as he is:
"False face must hide what the false heart doth know."
I have now considered nearly every word used by Macbeth in this first
act: I have neither picked passages nor omitted anything that might make
against my argument; yet every impartial reader must acknowledge that
Hamlet is far more clearly sketched in this first act of "Macbeth" than
in the first act of "Hamlet." Macbeth appears in it as an irresolute
dreamer, courteous, and gentle-hearted, of perfect intellectual fairness
and bookish phrase; and in especial his love of thought and dislike of
action are insisted upon again and again.
In spite of the fact that the second act is one chiefly of incident,
filled indeed with the murder and its discovery, Shakespeare uses
Macbeth as the mouthpiece of his marvellous lyrical faculty as freely as
he uses Hamlet. A greater singer even than Romeo, Hamlet is a poet by
nature, and turns every possible occasion to account, charming the ear
with subtle harmonies. With a father's murder to avenge, he postpones
action and sings to himself of life and death and the undiscovered
country in words of such magical spirit-beauty that they can be compared
to nothing in the world's literature save perhaps to the last chapter of
Ecclesiastes. From the beginning to the end of the drama Hamlet is a
great lyric poet, and this supreme personal gift is so natural to him
that it is hardly mentioned by the critics. This gift, however, is
possessed by Macbeth in at least equal degree and excites just as little
notice. It is credible that Shakespeare used the drama sometimes as a
means of reaching the highest lyrical utterance.
Without pressing this point further let us now take up the second act of
the play. Banquo and Fleance enter; Macbeth has a few words with them;
they depart, and after giving a servant an order, Macbeth begins another
long soliloquy. He thinks he sees a dagger before him, and immediately
falls to philosophizing:
"Come let me clutch thee:--
I have thee not and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet in form as palpable
As that which now I draw....
* * * * *
Mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses.
Or else worth all the rest: I see thee still;
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood
Which was not so before.--There's no such thing."
What is all this but an illustration of Hamlet's assertion:
"There is nothing either good or bad
But thinking makes it so."
Just too as Hamlet swings on his mental balance, so that it is still a
debated question among academic critics whether his madness was feigned
or real, so here Shakespeare shows us how Macbeth loses his foothold on
reality and falls into the void.
The lyrical effusion that follows is not very successful, and probably
on that account Macbeth breaks off abruptly:
"Whiles I threat he lives,
Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives,"
which is, of course, precisely Hamlet's complaint:
"This is most brave;
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words."
After this Lady Macbeth enters, and the murder is committed, and now
wrought to the highest tension Macbeth must speak from the depths of his
nature with perfect sincerity. Will he exult, as the ambitious man
would, at having taken successfully the longest step towards his goal?
Or will he, like a prudent man, do his utmost to hide the traces of his
crime, and hatch plans to cast suspicion on others? It is Lady Macbeth
who plays this part; she tells Macbeth to "get some water,"
"And wash this filthy witness from your hand,"
while he, brainsick, rehearses past fears and shows himself the
sensitive poet-dreamer inclined to piety: here is the incredible scene:
"Lady M. There are two lodged together.
Macb. One cried, 'God bless us!' and 'Amen' the other,
As they had seen me with these hangman's hands.
Listening their fear, I could not say 'Amen,'
When they did say 'God bless us.'
Lady M. Consider it not so deeply.
Macb. But wherefore could not I pronounce 'Amen'?
I had most need of blessing, and 'Amen'
Stuck in my throat."
This religious tinge colouring the weakness of self-pity is to be found
again and again in "Hamlet"; Hamlet, too, is religious-minded; he begs
Ophelia to remember his sins in her orisons. When he first sees his
father's ghost he cries:
"Angels and ministers of grace defend us,"
and when the ghost leaves him his word is, "I'll go pray." This new
trait, most intimate and distinctive, is therefore the most conclusive
proof of the identity of the two characters. The whole passage in the
mouth of a murderer is utterly unexpected and out of place; no wonder
Lady Macbeth exclaims:
"These deeds must not be thought
After these ways: so, it will make us mad."
But nothing can restrain Macbeth; he gives rein to his poetic
imagination, and breaks out in an exquisite lyric, a lyric which has
hardly any closer relation to the circumstances than its truth to
"Methought I heard a voice cry, 'Sleep no more!
Macbeth does murder sleep,'--the innocent sleep:
Sleep, that knits up the ravelled sleave of care,"
and so forth--the poet in love with his own imaginings.
Again Lady Macbeth tries to bring him back to a sense of reality; tells
him his thinking unbends his strength, and finally urges him to take the
daggers back and
The sleepy grooms with the blood."
But Macbeth's nerve is gone; he is physically broken now as well as
mentally o'erwrought; he cries:
"I'll go no more;
I am afraid to think what I have done.
Look on't again I dare not."
All this is exquisitely characteristic of the nervous student who has
been screwed up to a feat beyond his strength, "a terrible feat," and
who has broken down over it, but the words are altogether absurd in the
mouth of an ambitious, half-barbarous chieftain.
His wife chides him as fanciful, childish--"infirm of purpose,"--she'll
put the daggers back herself; but nothing can hearten Macbeth; every
household noise sets his heart thumping:
"Whence is that knocking?
How is't with me when every noise appals me?"
His mind rocks; he even imagines he is being tortured:
"What hands are here? Ha!
They pluck out my eyes."
And then he swings into another incomparable lyric:
"Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red."
There is a great deal of the poet-neuropath and very little of the
murderer for ambition's sake in this lyrical hysteria. No wonder Lady
Macbeth declares she would be ashamed "to wear a heart so white." It is
all Hamlet over again, Hamlet wrought up to a higher pitch of intensity.
And here it should be remembered that "Macbeth" was written three years
after "Hamlet" and probably just before "Lear"; one would therefore
expect a greater intensity and a deeper pessimism in Macbeth than in
The character-drawing in the next scene is necessarily slight. The
discovery of the murder impels every one save the protagonist to action,
but Macbeth finds time even at the climax of excitement to coin
Hamlet-words that can never be forgotten:
"There's nothing serious in mortality;"
and the description of Duncan:
"His silver skin laced with his golden blood"
--as sugar'd sweet as any line in the sonnets, and here completely out
In these first two acts the character of Macbeth is outlined so firmly
that no after-touches can efface the impression.
Now comes a period in the drama in which deed follows so fast upon deed,
that there is scarcely any opportunity for characterization. To the
casual view Macbeth seems almost to change his nature, passing from
murder to murder quickly if not easily. He not only arranges for
Banquo's assassination, but leaves Lady Macbeth innocent of the
knowledge. The explanation of this seeming change of character is at
hand. Shakespeare took the history of Macbeth from Holinshed's
Chronicle, and there it is recorded that Macbeth murdered Banquo and
many others, as well as Macduff's wife and children. Holinshed makes
Duncan have "too much of clemencie," and Macbeth "too much of crueltie."
Macbeth's actions correspond with his nature in Holinshed; but
Shakespeare first made Macbeth in his own image--gentle, bookish and
irresolute--and then found himself fettered by the historical fact that
Macbeth murdered Banquo and the rest. He was therefore forced to explain
in some way or other why his Macbeth strode from crime to crime. It must
be noted as most characteristic of gentle Shakespeare that even when
confronted with this difficulty he did not think of lending Macbeth any
tinge of cruelty, harshness, or ambition. His Macbeth commits murder for
the same reason that the timorous deer fights--out of fear.
"To be thus is nothing;
But to be safely thus. Our fears in Banquo
Stick deep, and in his royalty of nature
Reigns that which would be feared":
"There is none but he
Whose being I do fear":...
This proves, as nothing else could prove, the all-pervading, attaching
kindness of Shakespeare's nature. Again and again Lady Macbeth saves the
situation and tries to shame her husband into stern resolve, but in
vain; he's "quite unmann'd in folly."
Had Macbeth been made ambitious, as the commentators assume, there would
have been a sufficient motive for his later actions. But ambition is
foreign to the Shakespeare-Hamlet nature, so the poet does not employ
it. Again and again he returns to the explanation that the timid grow
dangerous when "frighted out of fear." Macbeth says:
"But let the frame of things disjoint, both the worlds suffer
Ere we will eat our meal in fear, and sleep
In the affliction of these terrible dreams
That shake us nightly."
In passing I may remark that Hamlet, too, complains of "bad dreams."
In deep Hamlet melancholy, Macbeth now begins to contrast his state with
"After life's fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst: nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further."
Lady Macbeth begs him to sleek o'er his rugged looks, be bright and
jovial. He promises obedience; but soon falls into the dark mood again
and predicts "a deed of dreadful note." Naturally his wife questions
him, and he replies:
"Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck,
Till thou applaud the deed. Come, seeling night,
Scarf up the tender eye of pityful day,
And with thy bloody and invisible hand
Cancel and tear to pieces that great bond
Which keeps me pale."
No other motive for murder is possible to Shakespeare-Macbeth but fear.
Banquo is murdered, but still Macbeth cries:
"I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears."
The scene with the ghost of Banquo follows, where-in Macbeth again shows
the nervous imaginative Hamlet nature. His next speech is mere
reflection, and again Hamlet might have framed it:
"the time has been
That when the brains were out the man would die
And there an end": ...
But while fear may be an adequate motive for Banquo's murder, it can
hardly explain the murder of Macduff's wife and children. Shakespeare
feels this, too, and therefore finds other reasons natural enough; but
the first of these reasons, "his own good," is not especially
characteristic of Macbeth, and the second, while perhaps characteristic,
is absurdly inadequate: men don't murder out of tediousness:
"For mine own good
All causes shall give way: I am in blood
Stepped in so far, that, should I wade no more,
Returning were as tedious as go o'er."
[Footnote 1: It seems to me probable that Shakespeare, unable to find an
adequate motive for murder, borrowed this one from "Richard III." Richard
"But I am in
So far in blood that sin will pluck on sin"--
This is an explanation following the fact rather than a cause producing
it--an explanation, moreover, which may be true in the case of a
fiendlike Richard, but is not true of a Macbeth.]
Take it all in all, this latter reason is as poor a motive for
cold-blooded murder as was ever given, and Shakespeare again feels this,
for he brings in the witches once more to predict safety to Macbeth and
adjure him to be "bloody, bold and resolute." When they have thus
screwed his courage to the sticking place as his wife did before,
Macbeth resolves on Macduff's murder, but he immediately recurs to the
old explanation; he does not do it for his "own good" nor because
"returning is tedious "; he does it
"That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder."
It is fair to say that Shakespeare's Macbeth is so gentle-kind, that he
can find no motive in himself for murder, save fear. The words
Shakespeare puts into Hubert's mouth in "King John" are really his own
"Within this bosom never enter'd yet
The dreadful motion of a murderous thought."
The murders take place and the silly scenes in England between Malcolm
and Macduff follow, and then come Lady Macbeth's illness, and the
characteristic end. The servant tells Macbeth of the approach of the
English force, and he begins the wonderful monologue:
"my May of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but in their stead
Curses, not loud, but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not."
Truly this is a strange murderer who longs for "troops of friends," and
who at the last push of fate can find in himself kindness enough towards
others to sympathize with the "poor heart." All this is pure Hamlet; one
might better say, pure Shakespeare.
We are next led into the field with Malcolm and Macduff, and immediately
back to the castle again. While the women break into cries, Macbeth
soliloquizes in the very spirit of bookish Hamlet:
"I have almost forgot the taste of fears.
The time has been, my senses would have cooled
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir
As life were in 't."
The whole passage, and especially the "dismal treatise," recalls the
Wittenberg student with a magic of representment.
The death of the Queen is announced, and wrings from Macbeth a speech
full of despairing pessimism, a bitterer mood than ever Hamlet knew; a
speech, moreover, that shows the student as well as the incomparable
"She should have died hereafter:
There would have been a time for such a word.--
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth's philosophy, like Hamlet's, ends in utter doubt, in a passion
of contempt for life, deeper than anything in Dante. The word "syllable"
in this lyric outburst is as characteristic as the "dismal treatise" in
the previous one, and more characteristic still of Hamlet is the
likening of life to "a poor player."
The messenger tells Macbeth that Birnam Wood has begun to move, and he
sees that the witches have cheated him. He can only say, as Hamlet might
"I 'gin to be aweary of the sun,
And wish the estate o' the world were now undone.--
Ring the alarum bell! Blow wind! Come, wrack!
At least we'll die with harness on our back."
And later he cries:
"They have tied me to a stake; I cannot fly,
But bear-like I must fight the course."
This seems to me intensely characteristic of Hamlet; the brutal side of
action was never more contemptuously described, and Macbeth's next
soliloquy makes the identity apparent to every one; it is in the true
"Why should I play the Roman fool and die
On mine own sword?"
[Footnote 1: About the year 1600 Shakespeare seems to have steeped
himself in Plutarch. For the next five or six years, whenever he thinks
of suicide, the Roman way of looking at it occurs to him. Having made up
his mind to kill himself, Laertes cries:
"I am more an antique Roman than a Dane,"
and, in like case, Cleopatra talks of dying "after the high Roman
Macbeth then meets Macduff, and there follows the confession of pity and
remorse, which must be compared to the gentle-kindness with which Hamlet
treats Laertes and Romeo treats Paris. Macbeth says to Macduff:
"Of all men else I have avoided thee:
But get thee back, my soul is too much charged
With blood of thine already."
Then comes the "something desperate" in him that Hamlet boasted of--and
Here we have every characteristic of Hamlet without exception, The
crying difference of situation only brings out the essential identity of
the two characters. The two portraits are of the same person and
finished to the finger-tips. The slight shades of difference between
Macbeth and Hamlet only strengthen our contention that both are
portraits of the poet; for the differences are manifestly changes in the
same character, and changes due merely to age. Just as Romeo is younger
than Hamlet, showing passion where Hamlet shows thought, so Macbeth is
older than Hamlet; in Macbeth the melancholy has grown deeper, the tone
more pessimistic, and the heart gentler. [Footnote: Immediately after
the publication of these first two essays, Sir Henry Irving seized the
opportunity and lectured before a distinguished audience on the
character of Macbeth. He gave it as his opinion that "Shakespeare has
presented Macbeth as one of the most blood-thirsty, most hypocritical
villains in his long gallery of men, instinct with the virtues and vices
of their kind (sic)." Sir Henry Irving also took the occasion to
praise the simile of pity:
"And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast."
This ridiculous fustian seemed to him "very beautiful." All this was
perfectly gratuitous: no one needed to be informed that a man might have
merit as an actor and yet be without any understanding of psychology or
any taste in letters.] I venture, therefore, to assert that the portrait
we find in Romeo and Jaques first, and then in Hamlet, and afterwards in
Macbeth, is the portrait of Shakespeare himself, and we can trace his
personal development through these three stages.
It may be well to add here a couple of portraits of Shakespeare in later
life in order to establish beyond question the chief features of his
character. With this purpose in mind I shall take a portrait that is a
mere sketch of him, Duke Vincentio in "Measure for Measure," and a
portrait that is minutely finished and perfect, though consciously
idealized, Posthumus, in "Cymbeline." And the reason I take this
careless, wavering sketch, and contrast it with a highly-finished
portrait, is that, though the sketch is here and there hardly
recognizable, the outline being all too thin and hesitating, yet now and
then a characteristic trait is over-emphasized, as we should expect in
careless work. And this sketch in lines now faint, now all too heavy, is
curiously convincing when put side by side with a careful and elaborate
portrait in which the same traits are reproduced, but harmoniously, and
with a perfect sense of the relative value of each feature. No critic,
so far as I am aware, not Hazlitt, not Brandes, not even Coleridge, has
yet thought of identifying either Duke Vincentio or Posthumus with
Hamlet, much less with Shakespeare himself. The two plays are very
unlike each other in tone and temper; "Measure for Measure" being a sort
of tract for the times, while "Cymbeline" is a purely romantic drama.
Moreover, "Measure for Measure" was probably written a couple of years
after "Hamlet," towards the end of 1603, while "Cymbeline" belongs to
the last period of the poet's activity, and could hardly have been
completed before 1610 or 1611. The dissimilarity of the plays only
accentuates the likeness of the two protagonists.
"Measure for Measure" is one of the best examples of Shakespeare's
contempt for stagecraft. Not only is the mechanism of the play, as we
shall see later, astonishingly slipshod, but the ostensible purpose of
the play, which is to make the laws respected in Vienna, is not only not
attained, but seems at the end to be rather despised than forgotten.
This indifference to logical consistency is characteristic of
Shakespeare; Hamlet speaks of "the undiscovered country from whose
bourne no traveller returns" just after he has been talking with his
dead father. The poetic dreamer cannot take the trouble to tie up the
loose ends of a story: the real purpose of "Measure for Measure," which
is the confusion of the pretended ascetic Angelo, is fulfilled, and that
is sufficient for the thinker, who has thus shown what "our seemers be."
It is no less characteristic of Shakespeare that Duke Vincentio, his
alter ego, should order another to punish loose livers--a task
which his kindly nature found too disagreeable. But, leaving these
general considerations, let us come to the first scene of the first act:
the second long speech of the Duke should have awakened the suspicion
that Vincentio is but another mask for Shakespeare. The whole speech
proclaims the poet; the Duke begins:
There is a kind of character in thy life,"
Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in what is supposed to be
"There is a kind of confession in your looks."
A little later the line:
"Spirits are not finely touched
But to fine issues,"
is so characteristic of Hamlet-Shakespeare that it should have put every
reader on the track.
The speeches of the Duke in the fourth scene of the first act are also
characteristic of Shakespeare. But the four lines,
"My holy sir, none better knows than you
How I have ever loved the life removed,
And held in idle price to haunt assemblies,
Where youth and cost and witless bravery keep,"
are to me an intimate, personal confession; a fuller rendering indeed of
Hamlet's "Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither." In any case it
will be admitted that a dislike of assemblies and cost and witless
bravery is peculiar in a reigning monarch, so peculiar indeed that it
reminds me of the exiled Duke in "As You Like It," or of Duke Prospero
in "The Tempest" (two other incarnations of Shakespeare), rather than of
any one in real life. A love of solitude; a keen contempt for shows and
the "witless bravery" of court-life were, as we shall see,
characteristics of Shakespeare from youth to old age.
In the first scene of the third act the Duke as a friar speaks to the
condemned Claudio. He argues as Hamlet would argue, but with, I think, a
more convinced hopelessness. The deepening scepticism would of itself
force us to place "Measure for Measure" a little later than "Hamlet":
"Reason thus with life:--
If I do lose thee, I do lose a thing
That none but fools would keep; a breath thou art,
* * * * *
The best of rest is sleep,
And that thou oft provok'st, yet grossly fear'st
Thy death, which is no more. Thou'rt not thyself;
For thou exist'st on many a thousand grains
That issue out of dust. Happy thou art not;
For what thou hast not, still thou striv'st to get,
And what thou hast, forgett'st.
* * * * *
What's in this,
That bears the name of life? Yet in this life
Lie hid more thousand deaths; yet death we fear,
That makes these odds all even."
That this scepticism of Vincentio is Shakespeare's scepticism appears
from the fact that the whole speech is worse than out of place when
addressed to a person under sentence of death. Were we to take it
seriously, it would show the Duke to be curiously callous to the
sufferings of the condemned Claudio; but callous the Duke is not, he is
merely a pensive poet-philosopher talking in order to lighten his own
heart. Claudio makes unconscious fun of the Duke's argument:
"To sue to live, I find I seek to die,
And seeking death, find life: let it come on."
This scepticism of Shakespeare which shows itself out of place in Angelo
and again most naturally in Claudio's famous speech, is one of the
salient traits of his character which is altogether over-emphasized in
this play. It is a trait, moreover, which finds expression in almost
everything he wrote. Like nearly all the great spirits of the
Renaissance, Shakespeare was perpetually occupied with the heavy
problems of man's life and man's destiny. Was there any meaning or
purpose in life, any result of the striving? was Death to be feared or a
Hereafter to be desired?--incessantly he beat straining wings in the
void. But even in early manhood he never sought to deceive himself. His
Richard II. had sounded the shallow vanity of man's desires, the
futility of man's hopes; he knew that man
"With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing."
And this sad knowledge darkened all Shakespeare's later thinking.
Naturally, when youth passed from him and disillusionment put an end to
dreaming, his melancholy deepened, his sadness became despairing; we can
see the shadows thickening round him into night. Brutus takes an
"everlasting farewell" of his friend, and goes willingly to his rest.
Hamlet dreads "the undiscovered country"; but unsentient death is to him
"a consummation devoutly to be wished." Vincentio's mood is
half-contemptuous, but the melancholy persists; death is no "more than
sleep," he says, and life a series of deceptions; while Claudio in this
same play shudders away from death as from annihilation, or worse, in
words which one cannot help regarding as Shakespeare's:
"Claud. Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot...."
A little later and Macbeth's soul cries to us from the outer darkness:
"there's nothing serious in mortality"; life's
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
And from this despairing gloom come Lear's shrieks of pain and pitiful
ravings, and in the heavy intervals the gibberings of the fool. Even
when the calmer mood of age came upon Shakespeare and took away the
bitterness, he never recanted; Posthumus speaks of life and death in
almost the words used by Vincentio, and Prospero has nothing to add save
that "our little life is rounded with a sleep."
It is noteworthy that Shakespeare always gives these philosophic
questionings to those characters whom I regard as his impersonations,
and when he breaks this rule, he breaks it in favour of some Claudio who
is not a character at all, but the mere mouthpiece of one of his moods.
[Footnote 1: One of my correspondents, Mr. Theodore Watts-Dunton, has
been kind enough to send me an article contributed to "Colbourn's
Magazine" in 1873, in which he declares that "Shakespeare seems to have
kept a sort of Hamlet notebook, full of Hamlet thoughts, of which 'To be
or not to be' may be taken as the type. These he was burdened with.
These did he cram into Hamlet as far as he could, and then he tossed the
others indiscriminately into other plays, tragedies and histories,
perfectly regardless of the character who uttered them." Though Mr.
Watts-Dunton sees that some of these "Hamlet thoughts" are to be found
in Macbeth and Prospero and Claudio, he evidently lacks the key to
Shakespeare's personality, or he would never have said that Shakespeare
tossed these reflections "indiscriminately into other plays."
Nevertheless the statement itself is interesting, and deserves more
notice than has been accorded to it.]
I now come to a point in the drama which at once demands and defies
explanation. In the first scene of the third act the Duke, after
listening to the terrible discussion between Isabella and Claudio, first
of all tells Claudio that "Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt"
Isabella, and then assures Claudio that to-morrow he must die. The
explanation of these two falsehoods would be far to seek, unless we take
it that they were invented simply in order to prolong our interest in
the drama. But this assumption, though probable, does not increase our
sympathy with the protagonist--the lies seem to be too carelessly
uttered to be even characteristic--nor yet our admiration of the
structure of a play that needs to be supported by such flimsy
buttresses. Still this very carelessness of fact, as I have said, is
Shakespearean; the philosophic dreamer paid little attention to the mere
incidents of the story.
The talk between the Duke and Isabella follows. The form of the Duke's
speech, with its touch of euphuistic conceit, is one which
"The hand that hath made you fair hath made you
good: the goodness that is cheap in beauty makes
beauty brief in goodness; but grace, being the soul of
your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever fair."
This Duke plays philosopher, too, in and out of season as Hamlet did: he
says to Isabella:
"Virtue is bold, and goodness never fearful,"
generalizing his praise even to a woman.
Again, when Pompey is arrested, he passes from the individual to the
"That we were all as some would seem to be,
Free from our faults, as from faults seeming free."
Then follows the interesting talk with Lucio, who awakens the slightly
pompous Duke to natural life with his contempt. When Lucio tells the
Duke, who is disguised as a friar, that he (the Duke) was a notorious
loose-liver--"he had some feeling of the sport; he knew the
service"--the Duke merely denies the soft impeachment; but when Lucio
tells him that the Duke is not wise, but "a very superficial, ignorant,
unweighing fellow," the Duke bursts out, "either this is envy in you,
folly, or mistaking: ... Let him but be testimonied in his own
bringings-forth, and he shall appear to the envious a scholar, a
statesman, and a soldier," which recalls Hamlet's "Friends, scholars,
and soldiers," and Ophelia's praise of Hamlet as "courtier, soldier,
scholar." Lucio goes off, and the Duke "moralizes" the incident in
Hamlet's very accent:
"No might nor greatness in mortality
Can censure 'scape; backwounding calumny
The whitest virtue strikes. What king so strong
Can tie the gall up in the slanderous tongue?"
Hamlet says to Ophelia:
"Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shall
not escape calumny."
And Laertes says that "virtue itself" cannot escape calumny.
The reflection is manifestly Shakespeare's own, and here the form, too,
is characteristic. It may be as well to recall now that Shakespeare
himself was calumniated in his lifetime; the fact is admitted in Sonnet
36, where he fears his "guilt" will "shame" his friend.
In his talk with Escalus the Duke's speech becomes almost obscure from
excessive condensation of thought--a habit which grew upon Shakespeare.
"What news abroad in the world?"
The Duke answers:
"None, but that there is so great a fever on goodness,
that the dissolution of it must cure it: novelty is only in
request. ... There is scarce truth enough alive to make
societies secure, but security enough to make fellowships
Escalus then tells us of the Duke's temperament in words which would fit
Hamlet perfectly; for, curiously enough, they furnish us with the best
description of Shakespeare's melancholy:
"Rather rejoicing to see another merry, than merry at
anything which professed to make him rejoice."
And, lastly, the curious rhymed soliloquy of Vincentio which closes this
third act, must be compared with the epilogue to "The Tempest":
"He who the sword of Heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand and virtue go;"
* * * * *
"Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice and let his grow!"
* * * * *
In the fifth act the Duke, freed from making plots and plans, speaks
without constraint and reveals his nature ingenuously. He uses words to
Angelo that recall the sonnets:
"O, your desert speaks loud; and I should wrong it,
To lock it in the wards of covered bosom,
When it deserves, with characters of brass,
A forted residence 'gainst the tooth of time
And razure of oblivion."
[Footnote 1: Cf. Sonnet 122 with its "full character'd" and "razed
Again, the Duke argues in gentle Shakespeare's fashion for Angelo and
"If he had so offended,
He would have weighed thy brother by himself
And not have cut him off."
It seems impossible for Shakespeare to believe that the sinner can
punish sin. It reminds one of the sacred "he that is without sin among
you let him first cast a stone." The detections and forgivings of the
last act follow.
It will be admitted, I think, on all hands that Duke Vincentio speaks
throughout the play with Shakespeare's voice. From the point of view of
literary art his character is very far from being as complex or as
deeply realized as that of Hamlet or Macbeth, or even as that of Romeo
or of Jaques, and yet one other trait besides that of sceptical brooding
is so over-accentuated that it can never be forgotten. In the last scene
the Duke orders Barnardine to the block and the next moment respites
him; he condemns
"An Angelo for Claudio; death for death,"
then pardons Angelo, and at once begins to chat with him in kindly
intimacy; he asserts that he cannot forgive Lucio, Lucio who has
traduced him, shall be whipped and hanged, and in the same breath he
remits the heavy penalty. Truly he is "an unhurtful opposite" [Footnote:
The critics are at variance over this ending, and, indeed, over the
whole play. Coleridge says that "our feelings of justice are grossly
wounded in Angelo's escape"; for "cruelty with lust and damnable
baseness cannot be forgiven." Mr. Swinburne, too, regrets the
miscarriage of justice; the play to him is a tragedy, and should end
tragically with the punishment of the "autotype of the huge national
vice of England." Perhaps, however, Puritan hypocrisy was not so
widespread or so powerful in the time of Shakespeare as it is nowadays;
perhaps, too, Shakespeare was not so good a hater as Mr. Swinburne, nor
so strenuous a moralist as Coleridge was, at least in theory. In any
case it is evident that Shakespeare found it harder to forgive Lucio,
who had hurt his vanity, than Angelo, who pushed lust to outrage and
murder, which strange, yet characteristic, fact I leave to the mercy of
future commentators. Mr. Sidney Lee regards "Measure for Measure" as
"one of Shakespeare's greatest plays." Coleridge, however, thought it "a
hateful work"; it is also a poor work, badly constructed, and for the
most part carelessly written. In essence it is a mere tract against
Puritanism, and in form a sort of Arabian Nights' Entertainment in which
the hero plays the part of Haroun-al-Raschid.] whose anger has no
stead-fastness; but the gentle forgivingness of disposition that is so
marked in Vincentio is a trait we found emphasized in Romeo, and again
in Hamlet and again in Macbeth. It is, indeed, one of the most permanent
characteristics of Shakespeare. From the beginning to the end of the
play, Duke Vincentio is weakly-kind in act and swayed by fitful
impulses; his assumed austerity of conduct is the thin varnish of vanity
that will not take on such soft material. The Hamlet weakness is so
exaggerated in him, and so unmotived, that I am inclined to think
Shakespeare was even more irresolute and indisposed to action than
In the character of Posthumus, the hero of "Cymbeline," Shakespeare has
painted himself with extraordinary care; has, in fact, given us as
deliberate and almost as complete a picture of himself as he did in
Hamlet. Unluckily his hand had grown weaker in the ten years' interval,
and he gave such loose rein to his idealizing habit that the portrait is
neither so veracious nor so lifelike. The explanation of all this will
be given later; it is enough for the moment to state that as Posthumus
is perhaps the completest portrait of him that we have after his mental
shipwreck, we must note the traits of it carefully, and see what manner
of man Shakespeare took himself to be towards the end of his career.
It is difficult to understand how the commentators have been able to
read "Cymbeline" without seeing the likeness between Posthumus and
Hamlet. The wager which is the theme of the play may have hindered them
a little, but as they found it easy to excuse its coarseness by
attributing lewdness to the time, there seems to have been no reason for
not recognizing Posthumus. Posthumus is simply a staider Hamlet
considerably idealized. I am not at all sure that the subject of the
play was void of offence in the time of Elizabeth; all finer spirits
must even then have found it puerile and coarse. What would Spenser have
said about it? Shakespeare used the wager because of the opportunities
it gave him of painting himself and an ideal woman. His view of it is
just indicated; Iachimo says:
"I make my wager rather against your confidence than her reputation:
and, to bar your offence herein too, I durst attempt it against any lady
in the world." But in spite of the fact that Iachimo makes his insult
general, Posthumus warns him that:
"If she remain unseduced ... for your ill opinion,
and the assault you have made to her chastity, you shall
answer me with your sword."
From this it appears that the bet was distasteful to Posthumus; it is
not so offenceful to him as it should have been according to our modern
temper; but this shortcoming, an unconscious shortcoming, is the only
fault which Shakespeare will allow in his hero. In the first scene of
the first act Posthumus is praised as men never praise the absent
without a personal motive; the First Gentleman says of him:
"I do not think
So fair an outward and such stuff within
Endows a man but he."
The Second Gentleman replies:
"You speak him far;"
and the First Gentleman continues:
"I do extend him, sir, within himself;
Crush him together, rather than unfold
His measure duly."
And as if this were not enough, this gentleman-eulogist goes on to tell
us that Posthumus has sucked in "all the learnings" of his time "as we
do air," and further:
"He lived in court--
Which rare it is to do--most praised, most loved;
A sample to the young'st, to the more mature
A glass that feated them; and to the graver
A child that guided dotards."
This gross praise is ridiculously unnatural, and outrages our knowledge
of life; men are much more apt to criticize than to praise the absent;
but it shows a prepossession on Shakespeare's part in favour of
Posthumus which can only be explained by the fact that in Posthumus he
was depicting himself. Every word is significant to us, for Shakespeare
evidently tells us here what he thought about himself, or rather what he
wished to think, towards the end of his life. It is impossible to
believe that he was "most praised, most loved"; men do not love or
praise their superiors in looks, or intellect.
The first words which Posthumus in this same scene addresses to Imogen,
show the gentle Shakespeare nature:
"O lady, weep no more, lest I give cause
To be suspected of more tenderness
Than doth become a man."
And when Imogen gives him the ring and tells him to wear it till he woos
another wife, he talks to her exactly as Romeo would have talked:
"How! how! another?--
You gentle gods, give me but this I have,
And sear up my embracements from a next
With bonds of death! [Putting on the ring.]
Remain, remain thou here
While sense can keep it on."
And he concludes as self-depreciating Hamlet would have concluded:
"And sweetest, fairest,
As I my poor self did exchange for you,
To your so infinite loss, so in our trifles
I still win of you; for my sake wear this:
It is a manacle of love; I'll place it
Upon this fairest prisoner.
[Putting a bracelet on her arm.]"
In his fight with Cloten he is depicted as a rare swordsman of wonderful
magnanimity. Pisanio says:
"My master rather played than fought,
And had no help of anger."
I call this gentle kindness which Posthumus displays, the birthmark of
Shakespeare; he had "no help of anger." As the play goes on we find
Shakespeare's other peculiarities, or Hamlet's. Iachimo represents
Posthumus as "merry," "gamesome," "the Briton reveller"; but curiously
enough Imogen answers as Ophelia might have answered about Hamlet:
"When he was here,
He did incline to sadness; and ofttimes
Not knowing why."
This uncaused melancholy that distinguishes Romeo, Jaques, Hamlet,
Macbeth, and Vincentio is not more characteristic of the
Hamlet-Shakespeare nature than the way Posthumus behaves when Iachimo
tries to make him believe that he has won the wager. Posthumus is
convinced almost at once; jumps to the conclusion, indeed, with the
heedless rapidity of the naive, sensitive, quick-thinking man who has
cultivated his emotions and thoughts by writing in solitude, and not the
suspicions and distrust of others which are developed in the
market-place. One is reminded of Goethe's famous couplet:
"Es bildet ein Talent sich in der Stille,
Sich ein Charakter in dem Strom der Welt."
Posthumus is all in fitful extremes; not satisfied with believing the
lie, he gives Iachimo Imogen's ring as well, and bursts into a diatribe:
"Let there be no honour
Where there's beauty; truth, where semblance; love,
Where there's another man,"
and so forth. Even Philario, who has no stake in the matter, is
infinitely harder to convince:
"Have patience, sir,
And take your ring again; 'tis not yet won:
It may be probable she lost it."
Then this "unstable opposite," Posthumus, demands his ring back again,
but as soon as Iachimo swears that he had the bracelet from her arm,
Posthumus swings round again to belief from sheer rapidity of thought.
Again Philario will not be convinced. He says:
"Sir, be patient,
This is not strong enough to be believed
Of one persuaded well of--"
But Posthumus will not await the proof for which he has asked. He is
convinced upon suspicion, as Othello was, and the very nimbleness of his
Hamlet-intellect, seeing that probabilities are against him, entangles
him in the snare. Even his servant Pisanio will not believe in Imogen's
guilt though his master assures him of it. Shakespeare does not notice
this peculiar imprudent haste of his hero, as he notices, for example,
the hasty speech of Hotspur by letting Harry of England imitate it,
simply because the quick-thinking was his own; while the hurried
stuttering speech was foreign to him. Posthumus goes on to rave against
women as Hamlet did; as all men do who do not understand them:
"For even to vice
They are not constant, but are changing still."
And Posthumus betrays as clearly as ever Hamlet did that he is merely
"I'll write against them,
Detest them, curse them--yet 'tis greater skill
In a true hate, to pray they have their will:
The very devils cannot plague them better."
"Write against them" indeed! This is the same threat which Shakespeare
uses against his dark mistress in Sonnet 140, and every one will admit
that it is more in the character of the poet and man of letters than in
that of the warrior son-in-law of a half-barbarous king. The last line
here, because it is a little superfluous, a little emphatic, seems to me
likely to have a personal application. When Shakespeare's mistress had
her will, did she fall to misery, I wonder?
I may be allowed to notice here how intensely characteristic all this
play is of Shakespeare. In the third scene of the third act, life in the
country is contrasted to its advantage with life at Court; and then gold
is treated as dirt by the princely brothers--both these, the love of
country life, and the contempt of gold, are, as we shall see later,
abiding peculiarities of Shakespeare.
When we come to Posthumus again almost at the end of the play we find
that his anger with Imogen has burned itself out. He is angry now with
Pisanio for having executed his order and murdered her; he should have
"saved the noble Imogen to repent." Surely the poet Shakespeare and not
the outraged lover speaks in this epithet, "noble."
Posthumus describes the battle in which he took so gallant a part in
Shakespeare's usual manner. He falls into rhyme; he shows the cheap
modesty of the conventional hero; he tells of what others did, and
nothing of his own feats; Belarius and the two striplings, he says:
"With their own nobleness ... gilded pale looks."
Unfortunately one is reminded of the exquisite sonnet line:
"Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy."
"Gild" is one of Shakespeare's favourite words; he uses it very often,
sometimes indeed as in this case, ineffectively.
But the scene which reveals the character of Posthumus beyond all doubt
is the prison scene in the fifth act. His soliloquy which begins:
"Most welcome, bondage, for thou art a way,
I think, to liberty "--
is all pure Shakespeare. When he determines to give up life, he says:
I'll speak to thee in silence,"
and Hamlet at his death comes to the self-same word:
"The rest is silence."
The scene with the gaoler is from Hamlet's soul; Posthumus jests with
his keeper as Hamlet with the gravedigger:
"So, if I prove a good repast to the spectators, the
ship pays the shot;"
and the Hamlet melancholy:
"I am merrier to die than them art to live;"
and the Hamlet riddle still unsolved:
"I tell thee, fellow, there are none want eyes to direct
them the way I am going; but such as wink, and will
not use them."
When the messenger comes to bring him to the king, Posthumus cries:
"Thou bringest good news, I am called to be made
for there are "no bolts for the dead."
Those who wish to see how Shakespeare's mind worked will compare
Posthumus' speech to Iachimo, when he has learned the truth, with
Othello's words when he is convinced of his own fatal error and of
Desdemona's chastity. The two speeches are twins; though the persons
uttering them should be of totally different characters. The explanation
of this astounding similarity will be given when we come to "Othello."
It is characteristic of Posthumus that he should strike Imogen in her
page's dress, not recognizing her; he is ever too quick--a mere creature
of impulse. More characteristic still is the way he forgives Iachimo,
just as Vincentio forgave Angelo:
"Kneel not to me:
The power that I have on you, is to spare you,
The malice towards you, to forgive you. Live,
And deal with others better."
In judging his fellow-men this is Shakespeare's harshest word.
Posthumus, then, is presented to us in the beginning of the play as
perfect, a model to young and old, of irreproachable virtue and of all
wonderful qualities. In the course of the play, however, he shows
himself very nimble-witted, credulous, and impulsive, quick to anger and
quicker still to forgive; with thoughts all turned to sadness and to
musing; a poet--ever in extremes; now hating his own rash errors to the
point of demanding the heaviest punishment for them; now swearing that
he will revenge himself on women by writing against them; a
philosopher--he jests with his gaoler and consoles himself with
despairing speculation in the very presence of the Arch-Fear. All these
are manifestly characteristics of Hamlet, and Posthumus possesses no
So far, then, from finding that Shakespeare never revealed himself in
his dramas, I have shown that he pictured himself as the hero [Footnote:
A hypercritic might contend that Jaques was not the hero of "As You Like
It"; but the objection really strengthens my argument. Shakespeare makes
of Jaques, who is merely a secondary character without influence on the
action, the principal person in the play simply because in Jaques he
satisfied his own need of self-revealing.] of six plays written at
widely different times; in fact that, like Rembrandt, he painted his own
portrait in all the critical periods of life: as a sensuous youth given
over to love and poetry in Romeo; a few years later as a melancholy
onlooker at life's pageant in Jaques; in middle age as the passionate,
melancholy, aesthete-philosopher of kindliest nature in Hamlet and
Macbeth; as the fitful Duke incapable of severity in "Measure for
Measure," and finally, when standing within the shadow, as Posthumus, an
idealized yet feebler replica of Hamlet.
SHAKESPEARE'S MEN OF ACTION: THE BASTARD, ARTHUR, AND KING RICHARD II.
It is time now, I think, to test my theory by considering the converse
of it. In any case, the attempt to see the other side, is pretty sure to